Does your dog have watery eyes, a runny nose, a cough, lack of energy and appetite? Is it like a human common cold? If yes, he or she may have a mild, viral infection like a cold, but not one we can catch or that they have caught from us – dogs are generally unaffected by the viruses that trouble us and vice versa.

What causes dogs to get cold-like symptoms?

There are a number of viruses that can cause a cold-like illness. For example, Canine Rhinovirus can cause sneezing and mild, clear nasal discharge and the affected dog may be a little quiet for a few days. Kennel cough (otherwise known as infectious tracheobronchitis) is another very common condition which presents with a cough. Canine distemper, canine adenovirus type 2 and parainfluenza can also cause disease of the nose, throat, airways and lungs – the respiratory tract. Fortunately, we can vaccinate against the last 3 viruses.

If we have a cold we are advised against going to the doctor for medical treatment as rest and home remedies are sufficient. Is it possible to make that decision for your dog or should you seek treatment? We will look at some of the conditions and consider when you need to see your vet.

In the UK, canine influenza virus is very rare: there have only been 2 cases, both in foxhounds and the disease was quickly isolated and did not spread. In the USA it is almost endemic. The disease starts as a mild cough but can progress quickly to pneumonia with complicating bacterial infections. Most dogs recover by treatment with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories.

Kennel cough is common in the UK, particularly after kennelling with other dogs, but it can also be spread at shows, classes, activity centres and popular dog walking areas. It is caused by a number of organisms, bacterial and viral. Bordetella bronchiseptica is a bacterial organism which can be the sole cause. While it is sometimes referred to as a “canine cold”, it is in the same family as the Whooping Cough bacterium and is as contagious and persistent. Viruses such as parainfluenza can also contribute to the disease. Initially, the dog has a hacking cough, as if something is stuck in the throat but is otherwise bright and well, eating and drinking normally. It is often fine to treat a dog supportively if there is a history of exposure to other dogs, and a harsh cough without loss of appetite or lethargy. One of our vets can prescribe anti-inflammatories, which can alleviate some of the signs, just as we would reach for a cold remedy. However, our home remedies are not safe or appropriate for dogs. Kennel cough is very infectious, so limiting contact with other dogs for 3 weeks is advisable.

when should I visit a vet?

If your dog develops laboured breathing or coloured discharge from the eyes or nose then, unfortunately, there may be secondary infection with bacteria such as Klebsiella, Streptococcus, or Pseudomonas. When areas of the respiratory system are damaged by viral or mild bacterial disease, more damaging bacteria can invade more easily. At this point, make an urgent appointment to see one of the vets to discuss chest x-rays, culture and sensitivity of the discharge, or antibiotic treatment as the bacterial infection may progress rapidly and can cause pneumonia. Dogs can also be affected by fungal and parasitic infections of the lungs and airways.

It is often helpful to check your dog’s respiratory rate (breaths per minute) as this can increase if they have airway or lung disease or are struggling to breathe because of an obstruction in their nose or throat. Dogs should not breathe more than 30 times a minute when resting; panting appears higher than this so avoid checking in a hot room or if they seem to be dreaming of chasing squirrels(!). Contact your vet if their respiratory rate is very high or their breathing seems to be very deep, with lots of effort. Sometimes breathing seems to come from the abdomen not the chest, as if the dog is repeatedly sighing deeply. This may be sign of lung or airway disease. Dogs can have contract diseases which affect the lungs, increasing the effort of breathing, but which are not caused by infections, such as COPD and eosinophilic pneumonopathy. Both of these conditions can look a little like asthma in us – and like in us, can be mistaken for a cold like virus; but they can be managed with medication. In older dogs, the larynx at the back of the throat can become weak and collapse into the airway causing noisy breathing.

The colour of the gums is another helpful indicator of whether the dog is struggling to breathe well. In a dog with pink gums (some breeds have black gums so if it’s normally black, don’t panic) you should see a salmon pink colour. Both the heart and lungs contribute to this colouration, as the heart pumps the oxygenated blood around the body but the lungs are responsible for getting the oxygen into the blood. So disease in either of these systems will affect the colour of the gums. If the gums are very red or pale or have a bluish tinge this usually reflects a more serious condition.

Discharge from the nose can also be due to a mild viral infection or allergy. In this case, if the dog is bright and well and the nose is just a little wetter than usual, the illness will usually resolve in a few days. If the discharge is copious, thick or coloured then it may be caused by a foreign body stuck in the nose (usually grass or a stick), bacterial or fungal infection, or a tumour.

A dog’s eyes can water for many reasons, a foreign body or even an eyelash can cause irritation and an increase in tears, as can infection or conditions that affect the inside of the eye, such as glaucoma. If the dog is closing or rubbing their eye or it seems to bulge then immediate veterinary treatment should be sought. Also, the white of the eye should look white and the surface of the eye clear and not hazy or blue.

The young or elderly dog and the unvaccinated dogs are more likely to be at risk of contracting respiratory infections, and of them becoming more severe. Brachycephalic dogs such as Pugs, French and British Bulldogs are often more prone to respiratory disease because of the abnormal shape of their skull and airways.

The conclusion must be that mild viral respiratory infections (like a cold in humans) are possible in dogs but we need to watch them closely to ensure that hey eat and drink normally and don’t find it difficult to exercise. If there are signs of deterioration in their demeanour or health then it is important to seek a veterinary examination to rule out any complicating factors.